On Corporate Authenticity … and the jury is out on Merck

Just a few hours after my last post, extolling Merck for Mothers, my friend dropped by to share that he’d just been diagnosed with bladder cancer. Things have been moving very quickly for him, and he’d already had his first treatment. Unfortunately he said- he didn’t know when he’d be able to resume because, despite his kind of cancer being the fourth most prevalent among men in the US, there was no more of the drug he needs available in North America. Crazy, he said with a slew of expletives, that Merck wasn’t making more of it.

Some paragon of corporate social responsibility I thought. Had I been snookered by Merck’s proclamation to save women from dying in childbirth? The jury is still out on this as I look into the claims that my friend made. Stay tuned for more thoughts on that specifically in a later post.

But the conflict raises the oft-teased matters of authenticity and transparency. I recalled a conversation several years ago that I had with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the strict vetting they gave to me and my then-client. For us to have the privilege of donating one million dollars to their nonprofit and have the reciprocal right to talk about it publicly along with the use of their logo was the sponsor the “right” kind of company? Was the donor’s business contributing to environmental poisons that may contribute to breast cancer? Was the donor hoping to “pink wash” their environmental sins by cutting a check to a standard bearer for good? If so, then they would decline the donation.

Whitewashing, green-washing and now pink-washing. Such cynicism! Indeed emerging from a crisis is a fine motivation for focusing on becoming an upstanding corporate citizen that embraces social responsibility initiatives. It is unfortunate when it’s just all lip service.  Authenticity is the element that enables employees to feel they are sharing in something important, and which demonstrates to consumers that the company is true to its values. That includes charitable giving, and goes well beyond to incorporate human rights in the supply chain, worker health and safety, and environmental protection in the course of doing business.

To keep accountable on authenticity companies need to create policies that encourage it, to set benchmarks for success and to constantly review and report. Yet it is confusing if a company has an awesome philanthropy initiative that saves lives while as part of its “day job” it is mistreating staff or holding back products that may heal people. Some are questioning whether Chevron’s Corporate Social Responsibility Report is too rosy for a global oil exploration and retail giant.

Thankfully, as The Economist notes, the practice of Corporate Social Responsibility is evolving beyond donating to charity and PR campaigns to deeper, more constructive and authentic initiatives with tangible outcomes. Plenty of companies are succeeding, like Medtronic which again made the list of top 50 socially responsible businesses. These leaders can help teach their peers by example.


About christengraham

President of Giving Strong, Inc. Christen advises businesses, foundations and families for how to make a greater social impact.